“Where are you from?” is a question I was (and still am) asked constantly. And after I go through the litany – California, Los Angeles, Salinas, Castroville, Tulare – there is always the familiar refrain, “But where are you really from?”
And so I explain. My parents immigrated from China, in the 1940’s. “Where in China?” From the Canton (now Guangdong) region, I say, even though I never knew exactly where. I heard my mother and grandmother talk about “Heung haw” and “Hoiping” which sounded like mythical places to me. They never could pinpoint it on a map and said, it’s in the south, near the Pearl River delta.
But it’s no longer a mystery to me. I have just returned from an 11 day trip to China with the Roots Plus group where we visited 17 ancestral villages in the Guangdong Province, including my own. We visited my father’s house in the Lim Ok Village near Chishui in Kaiping. Only the outer walls of adobe structure, built over 100 years ago, remained. We met, for the first time, a second cousin whose grandfather was my great-grandfather’s brother and shared old pictures. We visited my mother’s house in the Ung Sang Village where the roof had collapsed just two weeks earlier and gazed at the remains of the family altar. We took pictures in front of the majestic watchtowers in my grandmother’s Seto village. At each house, my brother and I burned incense and bowed three times in honor of our ancestors, thankful for the sacrifices they had made.
My rusty Cantonese flowed easily during the days we spent in Kaiping and Taishan. We chatted with vendors at the markets and the villagers we met. I was surrounded by people who looked like me and spoke my dialect. We squeezed through narrow alleys in the villages, walked among the paths between golden rice fields, and listened to the wind rustling through the bamboo trees. Grains of rice, still in their husks, were spread on paved roads and flat surfaces in the village. Bok choy and strips of fatty pork hung on patios to dry in the hot sun while chickens ran free. Groups of tangerine peels and peanuts were spread on the ground. I was humbled by the simplicity of life in the rural villages where, in some homes, meals were still cooked by firewood.
All through the villages, I was soothed by the earthly tones and sharp inflections of the Sze Yup Cantonese of my childhood. I could hear my mother and grandmother’s stories come to life when I saw women working in the fields and carrying water cans with a pole slung across their backs. This is how they carried water (“ahm suey”) from the well.
I felt more connected to China and being Chinese than I ever have been in my life.
This is where I came from. This is who I am.